Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 2018.
By Kevin Rudd
We tend to forget that there was nothing inevitable about the national apology to Indigenous Australians 10 years ago – just as we easily succumb to the cynicism that nothing has changed since then either. A dispassionate reflection on the facts suggest we might take a different view of both.
By 2008, Australia had been through a decade of official national denial that there was any need to apologise for either the stolen generations, or Indigenous Australia more generally. Lest we forget, John Howard’s formally stated position in the Menzies Memorial Lecture in the year he became prime minister was that Australia’s history should not be written by those given to apologising for the achievements of previous generations, or those who belonged to the “black armband view of our past”.
And in case we were left in any doubt about what this meant for a national apology, or the wider project of reconciliation, Howard’s formal remarks to the 1997 Reconciliation Convention left little doubt: “Australians of this generation should not be required to face guilt or blame for past actions and policies over which we have no control.” Even on the eve of the 2007 election, Howard said an “apology would reinforce a culture of victimhood and take us backwards.”
The uncomfortable truth is that this tradition within the Liberal Party still beats loud. Howard’s use and abuse of the politics of race to divide the country and force a political choice, in the minds of an uncertain electorate, between the Liberals, who would protect “us” from “them”, and Labor who would not, continues as a mainstay of Australian conservative politics. Howard was a master. Tony Abbott, his political love-child, who said the apology was no more than a “sop to the Left,” was his apprentice. Peter Dutton, who boycotted the apology in parliament altogether in 2008, is a Neanderthal version of the same. Whether it’s Indigenous politics, the Tampa, refugees, Muslim Australia, our relations with Asia, the strategy is the same. It’s called “The Racial Wedge”. And as for Malcolm Turnbull … ah well, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is still weak.
All these forces were alive and well in the politics of early 2008 as we prepared the national apology. In the elections of 2007, knowing what Howard was capable of, and having observed him despatch one Labor leader after the other to the boundary, deploying the alchemy of race, I was determined to defuse it as an election issue, and deny him the satisfaction of doing the same with me. Unless we formed government, it was simple: there would be no apology.
After the election, the Murdoch media, consistent with the world view of their proprietor, declared “that age of apologies was over”. More alarmingly, to those of us then crafting the apology, The Sydney Morning Herald also thundered in its editorial pages that “the apology is meaningless … it is certainly not an expression of national unity” and that “wrongly handled, it could end up like one of the numerous apologies uttered by Japanese politicians for their country’s depredations in Asia, hiding a lack of true historical consensus and contrition on the one hand, and seen as being insincere and lacking practical consequences on the other.” Thanks guys. We found ourselves buggered on both sides of the media divide.
Then there was the minor problem of the Parliament itself. We could either turn this into a Labor Party affair. Or try to bring the conservative parties with us, and forge a new national consensus around not just the apology, but also on Closing the Gap, and the wider project of reconciliation. Brendan Nelson faced the hostility of Abbott et al on the inside and had little moral or political support internally from Turnbull, who was already itching to replace him as leader. I met Brendan and concluded we could get him over the line in support of the parliamentary resolution, which is why we refrained from any real political attack on him in the weeks leading up to February 13.
Finally, there was that beast called the Labor Party itself – the battleship of Australian progressive politics on the one hand, yet also home to a professional apparatchik class of faceless, factional men concerned only with the praxis of power. A number of them were already muttering dark thoughts to me and others about how delivering an apology on my first day in parliament as Prime Minister would define me from the get-go as “just like Keating” – all about Mabo, the Republic, multiculturalism, and “the vibe.” I told them I thought Paul Keating was pretty good company to keep.
Much has been written on the day itself. Nelson gave an appalling speech, but he was hamstrung by the raft of ambitions sitting restlessly behind him. But the bottom line was he didn’t in the end oppose the resolution on the apology. So after more than a decade of denial, we had dragged them kicking and screaming across that mystical line called bipartisanship. That’s why I spontaneously grabbed Nelson’s hand after he had spoken, shook it, and then literally yanked him around the floor of the chamber to be photographed with me embracing the nation’s Aboriginal leadership. It would all make it much harder in the future for the conservatives to make a full throttle return to their atavistic past. Although some of them would always be trying hard.
After the apology, I was fully expecting a fully-primed racist reaction from across the more conservative parts of the country. I had grown up on a farm in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. I knew what it was like out there. And across wider regional and rural Australia as well. Parts of out capital cities were not much better. It wasn’t pretty. But to my amazement, it worked. It was no longer as easy as it had been to be a redneck on race. New standards in the public debate had been erected. The country began to feel in its guts that a reconciled Australia was better than one divided into permanent camps. There was – change.
Each step in the journey to national reconciliation is a hard one. Same with land rights. Same with Mabo. Same with Closing the Gap. And now constitutional recognition, Uluru, a national Indigenous voice, and a treaty. All seem so hard. My only advice to Turnbull today is if you put your head above the parapet and lead on this stuff, you might be surprised that the nation might just come along with you, and your internal opponents will be seen for the Neanderthals that they really are.